Much has been written about the physiological STARTLE RESPONSE.  This morning I find myself wondering what alert system human beings have that lets us know of some challenge to our selfhood rather than a challenge to our physical well-being.

How might we recognize this selfhood challenge?  Certainly we might first receive our alert through some physical sensation we experience, but what might a selfhood challenge response tell us about more than our physical body in physical space?


Here is a thoughtful blog post by Don Shetterly:  Startle Reflex

Another interesting online article connecting the startle response to pain through the vagus nerve system – CLICK HERE


For some background about how the startle reflex is connected to the fear response – CLICK HERE


However, my own thinking today about our response to challenges to our selfhood is perhaps more philosophical than it is physiological.  The first word that came to mind for me was the word CRINGE – as I recognize that when CONSCIENCE and CONSCIOUSNESS are called into play – I suspect that we experience an INNER cringe reaction that is actually our response to what feels WRONG to us in contrast to what feels RIGHT to us.

We are meant as sentient beings to be able to recognize wrong from right – and hopefully our motivation is to act on behalf of right rather than wrong.  Our inner cringe response lets us know that something we have noticed is creating a reaction of RECOILING from what feels negative and very probably harmful to us.

As Webster’s dictionary is indicating in relation to these patterns we are experiencing an aversion to something that makes us – however imperceptibly we might notice our reaction in our body – SHRINK in size in some way.  We are huddling within.  The dictionary indicates conditions related to cringe, cower, dwindle, refrain, wince, curl up, twinge…..

A TWINGE of conscience?


And, yes, these reactions I am talking about here today are directly connected IN OUR BODY to one of the most important and instantaneous survival reactions we have — our DISGUST response.  A reaction of disgust, which nature has designed us to have immediately if we see a certain look on another person’s face that lets us know to THROW OUT/UP anything we have in our own mouth that caused that special look on the face of someone else who has that same thing in their mouth!  GET RID OF POISON is what all of these reactions are meant to do — and they ARE innately linked within our body with our immune system.

Toxic poisons to our selfhood are every bit as real as poisons to our body are.


Oh, as a severely abused infant-child I knew these states of being nearly all of the time.  I HAD to experience these reactions because my abuser, my severely mentally ill brutally abusive (probably severe Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)) mother DID NOT FEEL THESE REACTIONS WHEN SHE SHOULD HAVE!  My mother experienced no SHAME response whatsoever for any affliction she did to me.  See also:  +A CRITICAL FACT I JUST LEARNED ABOUT MY ABUSIVE BORDERLINE MOTHER

Not only, then, was I forced to be her target for violence/violations as I was forced to be some projected evil incarnation of her own hated self, I was forced to feel all these powerful reactions to something that was so terribly WRONG – because I COULD feel these things – while my mother could not feel them.


My inner jury is out as to whether or not I think a person can have a conscience about something they are blocked from being consciously aware of.  I suspect that human consciousness is intimately linked to our conscience.  Both of these two BIG Cs are connected in their operation through our vagal nerve system:

See also on this blog:



My concern today is not only about how I react to other people based on my ability to HAVE an inner conscience/conscious CRINGE response that lets me know there is some challenge regarding wrong and right that I need to pay attention (attend to) so I can examine how I treat others.  My concern today is also about the long journey I have taken to be able to respect and recognize, to honor and to respond healthily when I alert myself to something someone ELSE is ‘doing to me’ that is NOT healthy to me.

This is about something early severe abuse survivors have to learn far down the road from when they were supposed to learn who to trust and who not to beginning in the second month of life.

The ability to recognize something is wrong in any relationship comes hard to early abuse survivors.  Knowing who to trust and who not to trust – what actions, which information to trust and not to trust – I believe becomes very complicated for us because we did not have these abilities built into our early forming body-brain during our early attachment months of life.

We have to include in our reactions and responses a level of intellectually THINKING about these things that slows us down – and opens up a wide margin for error that instantaneous built-in physiological reactions do NOT include.  Intellect is slow slow SLOW compared to automatic responses!


In thinking about all the kinds of trauma-triggered changes that happen in the body-brain of abused infants and children, it is easy to begin to recognize when our automatic ‘stress response’ system is overriding our ability to consciously choose how we are going to react to a threat or challenge in our present-day life.  (i.e., we are ‘too sensitive’, we ‘over react’ to perceived threats that don’t exist in the present, etc.)

Yet in the case of being able to trust our inner CRINGE – to recognize when someone/something is making us shrink and feel smaller – in other words when we are in some way being attacked on some level through an abuse of real or imaginary power over us – we ARE at a disadvantage in a sort of reverse way!

Threats that ‘normal’ people know-recognize instinctively and respond to automatically with instantaneous speed – in a healthy and normal response to challenges to their SELFHOOD – we are LUCKY if we notice at all!

And then when we DO NOTICE we are at risk for reacting very slowly – because we have to draw upon information that was NOT built into our body-brain.  The information we have that can help us has been learned far, far down the road in our life.  We have assembled our own information packet that we have to slow down and consult – most often on a case-by-case basis!

I know for myself I was raised through terrible abuse to DOUBT myself continually – at the same time I was NEVER ALLOWED TO DOUBT MY ABUSER!!

Doubt is a very healthy reaction to any kind of an inner cringe-cowering-shrinking-recoiling experience that we might have – but NOT when we aim that doubt at our own self!  I am no longer interested in erring on the side of someone else when I have this reaction!  It is not helpful for me to first suspect myself as the source of some ‘wrong’ I have detected through my inner alert system!

And (a word to some) go right ahead and accuse me of being defensive!  That’s why I have an immune system in the first place – to defend myself against threat and harm.  This is ME I am talking about.  This is MY SELFHOOD I have the absolute RIGHT to defend!  To the best of my ability I will allow no attack on ME whatsoever —- so —- don’t bother to try one!


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  1. And by the way; so right about not knowing the ‘bad’ guys from the ‘good’! No internal moderator yet again who can be
    relied on to give us the right information. A friend of mine said about boundaries: we are supposed to have an efficient gate keeper
    Who monitors our ‘walls’ and opens our gate to the good and closes to the bad from others. For abused people the gate keeper doesn’t
    Know and confuses the two!

    • Yes, it sure does! On narcissistic/Mother – I think all personality disorders on the spectrum include this component. There are parts of the brain – discovered in part through the ‘resting brain state’ discovery during research (including the precuneus) – that are involved in processing information about the self. I can’t imagine that anyone with a personality disorder has this aspect of their brain working ‘normally’.

      My daughter also mentioned today that the gifts of extreme sensitivity that I have – though appearing often as problematic to me in a world that places so little value on sensitivities — was probably a great part of how I survived my abuse.

      Toning the information I get from my sensitivities DOWN is a problem – as it is for anyone with PTSD/cPTSD – and it remains a problem (!!) for me how to respond/not respond to the info I receive —

  2. Lots of good point made in this post. I absolutely agree (also from what I’ve read) about the
    Reactions of our emotional brain to triggers in the environment. It has been a long hard road for
    Those with abusive backgrounds to understand what happened to them, unferstand their reactions
    And to then expect to have the step in place that mediates the emotional brain when it hasn’t
    Functioned optimally ever – is hugely difficult, sometimes impossible.
    As I read I thought of how incredibly quickly we react to the stimmuli we perceive in the environment
    That has such personal meaning. The book and posts about the book seems to have triggered a lot for the posters.
    Only today I experienced some triggers and have just spent time tracing them, the meaning they had for me
    At the time, the deeper roots of meaning and the relationships to and between my feelings which were linked to
    The particular messages I got as a child. In 3 minutes with my therapist I felt the fears of abandonment, shame and
    Perception I must subjugate my needs to hers. This because I saw her in her parking lot after a leave taking, she
    Seemed harrassed or upset and she is soon going away on a short trip. In my mind associations were made with the
    Car park, her expressions, meanings and my right to intrude/ be there.

    I was wonderinf alchemynow about the messages you received of being your mothers bad side – and how the book and posts mustve stirred up so much for you?
    Imagine reading that statement after those messages – how traumatic. Your mother I wonder – sometimes that she must have also been strongly on the narcissistic
    End of bpd. I hope its ok that I suggest that and doesn’t trigger more for you.

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